Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Common Ground: Seek and Ye Shall Find

First, my apologies for slacking on my posts. This entry is actually from March 19,2008. I am back on the road again, so I plan to post weekly. Thanks to everyone who has expressed interest.

So, March 22, 2008 marked my last day in Kuwait, with no more work there on the horizon, but good-bye has rarely been so rewarding.

Kuwait, for me, was not love at first sight. Her sands are grey: neither the rich, lustrous gold of the Saudi dunes nor the virginal white of the California shore. The stunning aqua of the Arabian Gulf’s waters is marred by the ever-present smog that hangs above and the sting of sulfur that often fills the air. Though they are not at war, there is no peace. Sirens, horns, and the city’s hive of traffic create a discordant opus, deafening and ceaseless. The piercing tirade wanders far out into the desert.

For many westerners, Kuwait is a lonely place. Family ties are strong here, and even those are laden with strict social taboos. The Kuwaitis I work with are very friendly, speak nearly perfect English, and enjoy sharing their knowledge of the United States, and many have studied or have family there. While men and women socialize freely in the work place, once outside they are expected to return home to their families, the only social circle outside the office. Western contract workers who travel to Kuwait solely for work have no families to go home to, and most often return to their four and five-star hotels for the evening. It makes for something of a Disneyland experience when you’re greeted daily by people paid to be friendly and served perfect meals that, though delicious, don’t come from the heart of a love-filled kitchen.

When I was here in March, I found the AWARE Center, a group dedicated to nurturing relationships between Westerners and Kuwaitis. The AWARE Center is an amazing place. Warm and welcoming, its calendar is rich with learning opportunities, and lectures are offered throughout the week. Hassan Bwambale, the center’s education coordinator, is a friendly Ugandan who moved to Kuwait quite some time ago to perfect his Arabic and pursue his studies of the Qur’an. We’d met at a diwaniya, one of AWARE’s discussion groups , and Hassan asked me to give a lecture. Since he knew so little about me, I was surprised asked “about what?” “Anything!” he replied. I told him I could discuss the potential opportunities for Western expats to assist Kuwait with some of its environmental problems, so that was that. My lecture was scheduled for March 19, so I prepared my discussion and, the week before my lecture, the government scheduled the birthday of the Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) for – you guessed it – March 19. His birthday follows the lunar calendar, so varies year to year. The show will go on, Ms. Noelle of the AWARE Center assured me, and so it did.

At the appointed hour, a lone guest arrived. He was a corrosion engineer from Scotland, and seemed quite eager for me to present my talk, so I did. It was a little awkward at first, but in a show of support, each of the AWARE Center staff came in to listen as well. I started with a PowerPoint presentation, the bane of public speaking in the 21st century, and meandered into informal discussion. I’d found a great You Tube video – in Arabic! – of a small living roof project in Egypt , and shared this with the group, as well as information on Tree People's Urban Runoff Recovery Program . The more I discussed the possibilities for Kuwait, the more excited I became, wishing my days in Kuwait were not at an end, wishing too that I could pursue some of these ideas here in Kuwait.

The more I travel through the Arab world, the more I learn that we are so much the same. As in Lebanon, many Kuwaitis are concerned for their waters and their fisheries. They too worry at the logarithmic increase in asthma among their children. Like Alaska, their wealth comes from the fruits of the ground. Oil pays for everything. Their schools, their roads, and their daily lives, are funded by the oil industry. Finding the balance between oil's wealth and its impacts, and between a society's lifestyle and its impacts. remains a challenge for all nations.

Kuwait’s challenges are many, but differ little than those of other nations. In fact, I opened my presentation with a slide show depicting the similarities between Alaska and Kuwait.. Like Alaska's extreme cold, Kuwait’s extreme heat drives a need for energy far beyond that of many less-hostile climates. Like Alaska, oil’s wealth has fostered a consumer culture, blinding many to the costs of polluted air and ocean dumping. Urban runoff, insufficient water, polluted oceans - these are issues the United States has struggled with, and we've found some creative solutions. And the Kuwaitis at the AWARE Center expressed the same concerns I have at home. At that moment, I ceased to be Alaskan, they ceased to be Kuwaiti, and we were all just people.

It’s always a bit risky to touch on religion, but it’s imperative. Christianity and Islam both preach preserving the gift s that God bestowed on mankind, and I see polluting the Earth’s resources as a violation of this edict, and therefore sin. Perhaps it will be the priests, pastors, clerics and imams who bring this message home again to their congregations - and to industry's leaders.

At the end of the talk, those few in attendance rewarded me with vigorous applause, warmth and encouragement. The AWARE Center and my new friend, Ms. Noelle, awarded me a lovely plaque for presenting my talk, and I left feeling sad to bid my final good-bye to Kuwait. Based on my experience that evening, I was filled with hope for Kuwait. What better way to leave a place that has slowly worked its way into my heart.

Here's the PowerPoint presentation I prepared for my AWARE discussion. If you can put it to use, then share the word!

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